Having just completed my undergraduate degree in the History of Art I am all too familiar with people asking what benefit the subject is going to have on my future. Given that I am about to continue with post-graduate study in September, I am now permanently prepared with a long list of answers on how to respond to those worrying about what I am going to do with my life after acquiring what they deem to be an useless degree.
Before I even started university people turned their nose up at the idea of me studying Art History and would try to dissuade me from adopting it as a career path. After about the one hundredth scornful remark at a dinner party this week, I have decided to share what it is that I have learnt already and what it is possible to do with a degree in the History of Art.
Art History is often seen as an ‘easy’ subject taken by the privileged or elite who will probably never have to work anyway, the most famous History of Art graduate being Kate Middleton. However, as any of my classmates will tell you that is simply not the case, with most of us having spent many long nights hunched over a book or a laptop struggling to churn out an essay on time with a view to working after graduation.
First of all, I would just like to clarify that just by looking at a painting, History of Art students cannot tell instantaneously what an artist was thinking when they created the image. Art historians are not psychics or mind readers. Furthermore, we also do not know everything about every painting or sculpture ever created in history. That would be like a musician having knowledge of every song, symphony or opera throughout time, regardless of style and genre.
The skills learnt through the study of Art History do not purely lead themselves to the knowledge of painting, sculpture and architecture. History of Art also encompasses photography, performance, film, animation and the decorative arts. Furthermore, how would we know what people looked like without images? Written accounts would give us an idea, however it is in paintings that we recognize figures like Henry VIII. Besides visual skills, politics and a less aesthetic sense of history are prevalent throughout, as are social and cultural history, with my own personal study leading me to study the art of China. Like all humanities degrees, students and graduates possess many transferable skills such as the ability to write a decent essay and conduct research.
In terms of future careers, I will point out the most obvious first: museum and gallery work, conservation, antiques and auction houses. These occupations appear to be what many feel are the only future for Art History graduates besides teaching, which is always dropped into the conversation.
While more ‘practical’ degrees like Economics and Business studies may appear desirable for employability purposes in large financial corporations, History of Art can be of great benefit. Many companies invest in art as financial assets. It is worth mentioning here that during the recession the art market continued to thrive while nearly everything else suffered. A corporate art consultant may act as an advisor on where to invest their money or as an actuary, something that would not be so easy with a Maths degree.
Furthermore, a degree in History of Art could lead onto further study in Law, allowing a graduate to specialize in Art Law involving issues concerning reproduction rights, repatriation and inheritance.
As with all humanities degrees, Art History may lead to careers in journalism, PR, the media and marketing. You may just as well ask what can you do with a degree in English or Philosophy.
I hope this has cleared up the question of what Art Historians are supposed to do with themselves besides teaching or working in galleries. Personally I don’t see why we should be any more worried about future career prospects than graduates of any other subject.